Nothing but net

The CrossoverThe Crossover by Kwame Alexander

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Crossover, Kwame Alexander has produced an evocative and heartfelt love song to basketball, and an honest look at sibling rivalry and family conflict. Thirteen year old Josh and Jordan are twin brothers, both immensely talented and members of the same high school basketball team. At 13 years old, they have their whole lives ahead of them, and pushing them to greater heights is their Dad, Charlie, himself a former basketball champion.
As the season progresses, Josh finds Jordan, once his closest companion, drifting away into a relationship with a new arrival, Alexis. Coupled with a sense of abandonment, Josh also sees his father’s health deteriorating and experiences a sense of powerlessness that is palpable.
The structure of this verse novel works really well as it manipulates language to emphasise Josh’s growing loneliness, as well as the excitement and adrenalin-rush of the basketball games he and Jordan play in. In fact, once the story kicks in, one forgets it is a verse novel- and that is a great strength of the writing here.
Some readers struggle with verse novels because of the short form of the text, but I think this really adds to The Crossover, giving it an immediacy and verve that compliments its subject matter.
Recommended for ages 13 and up.

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Panic – don’t.

PanicPanic by Sharon M. Draper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I expected big things from this novel as Sharon Draper is a popular writer in our library. Out of My Mind has been a big middle school favourite this year and I was interested to see how Draper would tackle the meaty subject matter of this book.
I was, in the end, disappointed by both the writing and how the abduction, rape and rescue of central character, Diamond, was handled. This book started out okay – with a group of friends at a dance school preparing for a showcase performance. Two of the girls, Mercedes and Diamond go to the mall to buy new tights and only one of them makes it home. Diamond is enticed away by a smooth talking stranger (Thane English) and finds herself in a terrifying and perilous situation. The reader sees her drugged, tied up and abused by numerous men in the name of video “entertainment”. It is a hard read. Her friends don’t seem too worried by her disappearance at first – perhaps this is an American phenomenon – if this happened here it would be all over social media in a matter of hours.
As well as the abduction of Diamond, the other issue in this book is partner abuse. Layla, a talented dancer, is verbally and physically abused by her boyfriend Donny. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be enough concern from her friends about this. They all talk about what is happening, but no-one seems brave enough to talk to HER about it. Donny is controlling and leaves bruises on her regularly and I found it difficult to believe that even the dance teacher (who must have seen Layla in leotards and dance gear regularly) failed to notice anything.
I got very impatient with this book. Mercedes, Layla,and Diamond speak in what I assume is supposed to be some sort of “street” talk, which sounds forced and ridiculous. Justin, the only male teen (other than the abusive Donny) felt like the only “real” character to me. He is caring, concerned, sensitive, but also struggles to make sense of what is going on both with Diamond’s disappearance and Layla’s abusive relationship. It is interesting to me as I have written about this book as an example of “YA realism” for a Uni essay because it hits a lot of markers present in other realist novels, but overall the effect is more of hyper-realism.
I also found an undercurrent of victim blaming in this novel. It is covert, but it is there, lurking in the background, particularly in relation to Diamond and her conduct and what it has led to.
I was actually asked to remove this book from the library by another library staffer because she had a complaint from a student about the “disturbing” content. I refused, because even an average book about these topics is better than none at all, and there are lessons to be learned from reading this novel. Draper, while not being graphic, does not pull punches in describing Diamond’s ordeal and that is a good thing. There is nothing pretty about rape, nothing attractive about being robbed of all control over what happens to you. In this, the novel excels. The resolution of the Layla/Donny situation is a satisfying one, but the rest of the novel’s conclusion left me shaking my head.
I would not recommend this book if you can find a better, preferably Australian, alternative. Try Stolen: A Letter to My Captor or Hostage as other options.

I would not give this book to anyone under 14 to read, unless you were confident they could handle the subject matter.

From one boy to another….

The Boy at the Top of the MountainThe Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The day I read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I knew I had read something life-changing. The story of Bruno and Shmuel is one I will never forget. It is possible that this new book by John Boyne just might be of the same calibre.
Pierrot is a young Parisian boy who lives with his parents in a time of great upheaval. Pierrot’s father is a WWI returned serviceman with symptoms of what we would now recognise as PTSD. After his father’s suicide, Pierrot’s mother becomes gravely ill and before he really understands what is happening, seven year old Pierrot is living in an orphanage. Fortunately he is not there long as his paternal aunt, whom he has never met, arranges for him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is the housekeeper in a house on an Austrian mountain top. The staff treat the owner of the house, Herr Hitler, with the utmost fear and respect. Pierrot has arrived at the Berghof.
Straight away, life changes for Pierrot. His aunt buys him Austrian clothes, and tells him from now on he will be called “Pieter”. She tells him it is for his own safety and he must not ever mention his best friend from Paris, Anshel Bronstein. Beatrix and the chauffeur, Ernst, tell Pieter that his life depends on not mentioning his old life in France at all.
It is interesting that Boyne chose the name Pierrot for this child protagonist, as Pierrot is a stock theatre character known as ‘the sad clown’. Pieter has to dress up and pretend to be someone else, as Pierrot the clown does, and Pieter must charm and win over Herr Hitler in order to be allowed to stay, just as Pierrot dressed up and acted the fool to win over Columbine.
Day by day, month by month, Pieter becomes part of life at the Berghof. He greatly admires Herr Hitler, his benefactor, and he joins the Hitler Youth to honour him. His aunt can see he is changing, becoming a model Hitlerjugend, and she is powerless to stop it. Forced to disown his Jewish friend Anshel (left behind in Paris), and abandon his true heritage, Pieter is determined to fit in and be accepted by Hitler as a “model citizen” of the Reich. Pieter begins to watch the staff at the Berghof, including his aunt and Ernst, and he becomes someone they are fearful of. Buoyed by this feeling of power over others, Pieter tries to impress a girl from school, Katarina, with stories of his life at the Berghof, but she is unmoved.
As Pieter becomes more and more entrenched in life at the Berghof, he becomes closer and closer to Hitler and drawn away from Aunt Beatrix. When he overhears Beatrix and Ernst talking about “stopping” the Fuhrer, Pieter is on high alert. At the staff Christmas Eve party, Pieter stops Hitler eating a piece of stollen poisoned by Ernst and Beatrix and their fate, and his, is sealed. On Christmas morning, as they are shot as traitors, Pieter tells himself, “she was a traitor, just like Ernst, and traitors must be punished.” His transformation is complete. Pierrot the French boy is now Pieter the Nazi.
The rest of the novel is an examination of a descent into evil. It is difficult to feel sympathy for Pieter as he throws his power around, hurting many other people in the process, but it is important to remember he is a product of his environment and his need to belong and feel accepted. These are powerful needs and emotions and this novel demonstrates how they can control and alter one’s life forever.
If The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a study of how one man’s insanity can destroy an entire culture, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a study of how one culture’s complicity can destroy one young man. Equally as powerful, and a wonderful companion to his first novel, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is an intense experience. I thought about this book for days after I had finished it, especially the ending (not revealed here because of my no-spoiler policy), and I still can’t completely let it go.
An absolute must-read. For ages 14 and up.

Three Wonders of the World

Auggie & Me: Three Wonder StoriesAuggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories by R.J. Palacio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection of three novellas is a must for anyone who read and enjoyed Palacio’s debut novel, Wonder . The story of Auggie Pullman touched millions and in this book, three of the characters whose lives were affected by Auggie in different ways are the protagonists. After being so moved by Wonder, I was sceptical about reacting in the same way to these stories. If anything, these are even more moving because we are able to see deep into these characters’ minds and emotions.
“The Julian Chapter” centres on Auggie’s nemesis, Julian Albans. In his introduction to this book, Palacio explains this was a story he had to write. Many of the letters he received after writing Wonder were about how mean Julian was to Auggie. Readers wrote asking why he had to be that way. Palacio decided he had better tell them. The story that unfolds lifts the lid on Julian’s home life, and his past. His bullying behaviour in the first book is not glossed over, nor is it excused. What the reader does get is a keen insight as to how this kind of behaviour can happen, and how it can so easily get out of control. We meet Julian’s paternal grandmother, a Frenchwoman who loves her grandson, but doesn’t let him get away with anything. It is she who draws the Auggie saga out of Julian and tells him an unforgettable story that will change him, and the reader, forever. Julian is still not a likeable character – he is spoilt, childish and over-indulged by his parents – but by the end of his chapter there is hope he is becoming a more sensitive human being.
“Pluto” is Christopher’s story. Auggie’s long-standing friend who has moved away, has been affected by his relationship with Auggie all his life. The reader is taken back to the first time Christopher really understood how different his friend is. We see him creating a world that is safe and reliable for Auggie – and we see how hard it has been for him sometimes. It is clear there are moments when Christopher struggles with being Auggie’s mate. He sometimes feels resentment when his mother helps out Isabel and Nate (Auggie’s parents) and then his own family moves away, he resents having to keep in touch with Auggie – when all he wants to do is develop his new friendships and play in the after-school rock band. All the way through this story the one thing that shines through again and again is Christopher’s gentle good nature. He is a kind person and coming straight after Julian’s story it really stands out.
The last story, “Shingaling”, is perhaps the most revealing. Charlotte Cory who, along with Julian, and Jack Wall was asked to befriend Auggie when he started middle school, is living through a time of change. As well as meeting Auggie, she is going through something many girls face – friendship group changes. She talks about the “boy war” that started after the winter break in Wonder – where the boys all took sides for or against Auggie after Jack Wall hit Julian. Charlotte’s best friend, Ellie, has moved on to the “popular” group and now Charlotte is trying to find her way to a new friendship group. There is pressure for Charlotte to declare herself on the “right” side of the war and she refuses to do so, which just makes the girls more agitated than they already are. Charlotte, Ellie and some of the other girls audition for a prestigious dance production at school and Charlotte, Summer (Auggie’s close friend) and Ximena (a “popular” girl) are chosen. These girls don’t have much in common on the surface, but as they talk to each other, they discover there is a lot of common ground. Once the girls learn more about one another, they become friends, although none of them really publicise the fact at school – there is still a political balance to worry about. Charlotte’s journey through the friendship minefield is something MANY readers will instantly recognise. What the reader learns by reading this story is that everyone is struggling with something– in fact that is the overarching theme in all of these stories.
The quote Palacio uses at the beginning of “The Julian Chapter” really sums up what his book is trying to say:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – Ian Maclaren.
Every middle school student should read this book, heck, every human being should read this book.
Recommended for ages 10 and up.

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Wonder-Full

WonderWonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, this book is all about page 270. I can’t tell you what happens, except to say it is a moment that literally made tears spring to my eyes.
R.J. Palacio has written a beautiful story. A story about pain, about love, about hardship, about forgiveness, and a story full of hope.
August (Auggie) Pullman has been an outsider all his short life. Born with life-altering facial abnormalities due to a series of genetic misfortunes, he has been home-schooled by his doting mother, until it is time for Middle School. Now he is enrolled at Beecher Prep and is thrust into the swirling waters of junior high school. Auggie is an engaging protagonist. Not only is he intelligent, he is also witty and courageous. He knows how people react to his appearance, to the very last tic or sideways glance. Many find it hard to look him in the eye, let alone talk to and interact with him. Julian, a boy full of his own importance thanks to superficial parents, is one student who is not prepared to make Auggie’s life easy at school. Julian uses his considerable social influence to directly and indirectly bully and torment Auggie on a daily basis. To his credit, Auggie stands up to this pretty well because he doesn’t really care what Julian thinks of him.
Auggie has a few friends at school by the time his birthday rolls around and his friends sustain him – until he accidentally hears one of them, Jack, speaking badly of him behind his back. It is clear that Auggie values truth and loyalty in his friends most of all, and Jack has to work hard to eventually win back Auggie’s trust.
There are other relationships going through rocky times in this novel. Auggie’s Mum is struggling with his growing independence and not sharing every second of his day, and she struggles with Auggie’s older sister, Via, for similar reasons as Via starts Senior High School. Via has her own problems as her old circle of friends rejects her and she is forced to strike out on her own to find a new group to hang out with. Via is also highly protective of her brother and is there to offer him some good advice about how the politics of the school ground work.
Having the different characters tell part of the story worked well, particularly as the reader is able to see the various conflicts in the novel from different points of view – a point about empathy being well-made without ramming it down the reader’s throat.
Auggie’s resilience, the loyalty of his small group of friends, and his loving, supportive family make this a book with irresistible appeal. When Auggie finally makes it to the school camp that will change everything (a la page 270), we are totally with them, and rooting for Auggie all the way. The ending made me feel happy, and proud of the characters. I can’t tell you, spoilers, but I think it will make you feel that way too.
This book has been a huge hit at my school and across the globe, and now I know why. It teaches the young people reading it that life, even when it feels terrible and there are things about your life you can’t change no matter how much you wish you could, does get better – you just have to give it time and have self-belief. It’s a great message, really well communicated. It’s wonder-ful.
For ages 10 and up.

Silence is not golden

SpeakSpeak by Laurie Halse Anderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished this book in less than 2 hours. So compelling was the story, I could not, literally, put it down. Mel (Melinda) was a protagonist who struck a chord with me immediately. The soul-destroying microcosm of the world that high school can be came flooding back as I read this amazing Laurie Halse Anderson novel. After hearing Laurie speak about this book at the Reading Matters conference a few weeks ago, it was a must-read and it did not disappoint.

Mel had friends, good grades, and an okay family life before starting high school, but over the summer break something happened to change that. At first we are in the dark, trying to guess what has led to this state of affairs, but slowly Mel starts to reveal her story to us. There was a party, and Mel called the cops. There is a hint of something more under the surface, something that has made Mel withdrawn and increasingly unable to function normally. In her darkening world the only spots of light come from Art class, where her teacher Mr Freedman encourages her to express her inner emotions, and Biology where her lab partner is David Petrakis, who at least treats her like a human being. Her parents are clueless and not once do they really TALK to her, which was frustrating to read. When Mel’s parents are called to a meeting with the Principal and guidance counsellor, her mother cries, “why are you doing this to us?” This kind of sums up their relationship and my fervent hope for Mel was that this would change.

And then she connects with Ivy, from her Art class. Without even realising it is happening, she starts to claw her way back. One of my favourite moments in the novel is when Heather, a fair weather friend if there ever was one, tries to get Mel to help her decorate the prom venue after being left in the lurch by the rest of the popular girls. When Mel refuses to help her, Heather whines and carries on and Mel totally blows her off. I felt triumphant for her as I read this sequence, having been the girl in high school (and beyond) who often was put on the spot by “friends” to help with various things and could not say “no”. I know the power of NO, and it was great to see Mel embracing it and reclaiming some of herself.

I found the resolution of this story to be realistic and satisfying. I wanted to cheer, but instead I cried. I felt the release Mel felt as all the truth about the events of the party were revealed and she stepped up to take her life back from the brink.

I think every thirteen year old should read this, girl or boy – doesn’t matter. There is much to be learned in this novel. Laurie is a wonderful writer and her language is so evocative it is a pleasure to read. Another back catalogue for me to catch up with.
Highly recommended.

When lies become the truth

We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Just wow. This book is an intricate web of smoke and mirrors. A searing portrait of “old money” and all the evil it can bring out in people. A heartbreaking look at sadness, and longing for things past. Lockhart has drawn her characters, particularly Cady (Cadence), very well.
Two summers ago, Cady had an accident that no-one wants to talk about. She can’t remember it as she hit her head in the accident and now suffers crippling migraines. After a summmer away, Cady returns the next summer to the place where the accident happened, the family’s island, Beechwood. Through Cady’s efforts to remember what happened that fateful night, we learn about her cousins and past summers through flashbacks, and through the conversations she has with them on her return in the now.
Little by little Cady begins to remember snippets of what really happened the night of the accident. What follows is devastation, but I can’t tell you what or who – because that would spoil it. In fact, don’t let anyone tell you ANYTHING substantial about this book, because you need to approach it, for the most part, cold. Just pick it up. Read it. READ it. Marvel at the sophisticated world of the Sinclairs, and be grateful for what you have in your own little world.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.

This Door Leads to Mystery and Adventure

The Door That Led to WhereThe Door That Led to Where by Sally Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Firstly, let me admit that I had not read anything by Sally Gardner before this book. Secondly, I ask myself the question : why did I leave it this long?
The Door That Led to Where is fabulous. A time-slip/mystery/friendship/fantasy/realist novel that defies being categorised (obviously), and holds the reader right to the very end. Gardner’s characters are top-notch. You become invested in them without even noticing it is happening – until you read the last few pages with tears in your eyes.
AJ and his mates, Slim and Leon, are as close as brothers, and they are always in some kind of trouble. When AJ’s mum manages to get him an interview for a baby clerk position at a law firm she used to clean for, it seems that AJ’s life might finally be turning around.
And turn around it does, but in ways that AJ could not possibly have imagined. It is revealed early on that AJ is a Dickens aficionado, and this certainly helps him to navigate 19th century London when he unlocks “the door” of the title. He revels in the new environment and becomes deeply involved in the goings on, on the other side of the door.
There are mysteries to be solved – on both side of the door – where is Leon? What happened to AJ’s father, who was the previous holder of the key to the door? What is Mr Baldwin, a partner in the law firm AJ works for, up to?
Added to all this is the wonderful relationship AJ has with “Auntie Elsie” who lives in the same block of flats as AJ and his family. When he leaves the family flat because he can no longer stand living with his mother, Elsie becomes a grandmother figure and they look after one another. I loved this relationship and seeing it develop. The story straddles the two time zones really well – in a believable way (at least for me) – and never gets bogged down in the scientific “jargon” that so often accompanies a story like this one. Whilst it is definitely rooted in the 21st century, this is really, in essence, a mystery story that just happens to span 150 years. AJ, Slim and Leon become different people as the story progresses (or become who they were meant to be) – and they way the three end up really sat well with me. I am hoping there may be a second book in the works as there were a couple of loose ends not tied up – I think this could be a really engaging series if that was to happen.
Because there is some swearing in the text, I would say this is recommended for ages 14 and up, but if you have a mature reader who would cope with some fruity language as part of the plot (not gratuitous) I would say 12 and up. Now, to find the next Sally Gardner to read!

Two Worlds in One

AfterworldsAfterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Scott Westerfeld has taken two genres and meshed them together to create a novel that, whilst requiring concentration, is still great fun to read.
There are parallel stories going on here.

Story 1: Darcy Patel has written her very first novel, Afterworlds – a supernatural romance/suspense story. She is eighteen and bashed the book out in a month. Now, she has a two-book deal, and a massive advance to finance her first move away from home – to New York City – to work on the rewrites and start fleshing out “Untitled Patel 2”.

Story 2: Lizzie is the survivor of a terrorist attack at an airport. She survives this attack by playing dead, and unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the Underworld – the land of the dead. There she meets the strange and alluring Yamaraj – and romance is born.

This idea is very cleverly pulled off by Westerfeld. He gives us enough of each story in the alternating chapters to want to read on. I thought I would find this format tedious and I struggled intially to engage with the characters (and I still don’t think I fully engaged with them), but there was enough to keep me interested all the way through to the end.

Darcy’s story gives fascinating insight into the world of YA publishing and the personalities and processes that personify it. Lizzie’s story, to me, felt the more forced of the two and I did not find myself as immersed in her world and story as I did in Darcy’s.

Still, Scott Westerfeld writes well – it is clear he loves his characters and we are taken along for a very entertaining ride.

Recommended for ages 14 and up, due to some of the content and concepts.

Cuts Like a Knife

The Impossible Knife of MemoryThe Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hayley Kincain’s father is suffering from PTSD – a legacy of his service in the US military. She has been homeschooled by him on the road since she was eight, as he drove them around the country in his eighteen-wheeler. Until this year. This year, they are living in her late grandmother’s house and Hayely is enrolled at Belmont High as a senior. She is constantly in detention for proving her history teacher wrong, and she is not keeping up with her class work. Understandable really – under the smart-arse surface of her is a girl harbouring a fear of abandonment, of getting home and finding her father gone, or worse, him being there and just his mind gone. Hayley has methods and routines to keep people at arm’s length – even her best friend Gracie, whose parents have taken divorce warfare to a new level.
Into this picture strolls Finnegan Ramos. Finn. Smart, funny, handsome, afraid of heights and totally besotted with Hayley. Slowly some of Hayley’s walls start coming down and she finds herself growing closer to Finn – closer than she has ever been to anyone. Then her former stepmother turns up, and Hayley’s world begins to fall in on itself. She wants nothing to do with the woman she feels abandoned her father, abandoned her, but she also longs for that mother figure in her life – missing since the death of her birth mother. She starts pushing people way – even Finn.
One day Hayley comes home and her Dad is not there. He has left a note and a frantic search ensues, ending at the quarry, where Hayley’s father told her it was dangerous to walk…
This is a great novel – the writing is superb and I fell in love with Hayley and Finn, so much so that I read the last part of this book in a 90 minute flurry in bed this morning. It is an important story about family, about illness, about love and about hope.
Read this – I will be looking up Anderson’s back catalogue to catch myself up on an amazing writer.
For ages 14 and up – mainly because of the themes involved.